Strategists had planned for one set of crises, but got another

Tuesday, June 12th, 2018

In 1914 few people expected great power conflict:

If there were to be a crisis, most Europeans expected it to come either on the Rhine River between Germany and France, or in the North Sea between the British and German fleets. But the French and Germans had resumed normal, even productive, relations after the 1911 Morocco crisis, and the Germans had largely ended their attempt to challenge the Royal Navy. In late June 1914, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife arrived in Sarajevo, sailors from the two fleets were getting drunk together at Fleet Week in Kiel. Winston Churchill, who was there, later observed that no one in Kiel could have imagined that they would be at war within a few short weeks.

The shooting of an obscure archduke ought not to have changed this placid picture; indeed, for most Europeans, it did not. Within a few days, the story of a supposedly deranged teenager’s act in a faraway city had largely disappeared from the front pages of newspapers in London, Paris, Berlin, and even Vienna. When European newspapers did discuss their fears of an impending war, they most commonly referred to the possibility of civil war in Ireland after the passage of a controversial Home Rule act in Parliament. If anything were to come out of the latest crisis in the Balkans, it would involve Austria-Hungary and Serbia only, and even then only if the Austrians could prove their allegations that Serbian officials had been behind the plot.

But the Austrian higher leadership read something different into the assassination. They believed that Franz Ferdinand’s assassination amounted to what we would today call state-sponsored terrorism. In their eyes, this meant that Austria found itself in a strangely advantageous strategic situation. All European governments and most European peoples sympathized with the murdered archduke and his wife. If Europeans knew anything about the couple, they knew that Franz Ferdinand had married the woman he loved, despite the fact that she was not a Habsburg. As a result, they had made a modern marriage for love instead of power, even though the emperor’s disapproval led them to be snubbed at court and their children excluded from the line of succession.

To the senior leaders of the empire, the sympathy pouring into Vienna meant that, for the first time in decades, Austria-Hungary appeared as an aggrieved party in a Balkan crisis. They therefore believed that European public opinion would permit them to push matters with Serbia a bit further than they had been able to do during past crises. Moreover, the absolutist regime in Russia might hesitate to support a state that backed regicide, even if the Russians publicly posed as Serbia’s nominal protector. Britain, meanwhile, was distracted by events in Ireland, and the French were enraptured by the final days of the trial of Henriette Caillaux, the wife of a prominent politician who had shot a newspaper editor. (Her lawyer claimed, for the first time in French legal history, that she was not guilty by reason of mental defect because, her husband having refused to challenge the editor to a duel, her female brain could not adjust to playing the male role of having to defend the family’s honor.) In any case, both Britain and France had shown themselves reluctant to get directly involved in past Balkan crises. Austria-Hungary’s leaders had every reason to believe that officials in London and Paris would move slowly during this one.

For senior Austro-Hungarian officials, the military situation created by the assassination was almost ideal. They guessed that no regime in Europe would jump to Serbia’s defense, not even Russia. The British, French, and Italians would likely stay neutral or, in any event, not intervene while Austro-Hungarian forces moved south. If those forces moved quickly and crushed the Serbians, they might present Europe with a fait accompli before the great powers could stop them.

Their German allies read the situation in much the same way. Senior military leaders in Berlin worried about Russian military and industrial growth. Within a few years that growth would render most German military planning obsolete, confronting the Germans with a two-front war that most assumed they could not win. Although only a few people knew it, the German war plan tried to get out of that dilemma by sending seven of its eight field armies against France no matter what diplomatic crisis triggered war. In this particular one, therefore, France might be caught sleeping, Britain might declare neutrality, and, for once, the Austrian ally in whom they had so little faith might have a motivation to fight well. The stars would likely never line up so favorably again.

Thus did Germany issue a “blank check” of support to Austria. If, as expected, Russia remained neutral, then Austria could inflict a devastating blow onto Serbia and Germany would gain by association without having to do anything. If Russia mobilized, then Germany could enact its war plan under extremely favorable circumstances, most notably by quickly attacking a distracted France, most of whose people saw no link whatsoever between themselves and an assassination in Sarajevo. Perhaps most crucially, the German regime could defend its efforts to the German people as a purely defensive response to Russian provocation.

Having drawn these conclusions, the Austro-Hungarians delivered their now infamous ultimatum to Serbia on July 23. It gave Serbia just 48 hours to reply, meaning that the long, slow diplomacy that had taken months to resolve and defuse recent crises in Morocco and Sudan had no time to work. Serbia tried to be conciliatory, but the Austrians, with German backing, wanted war on terms that they assumed were as favorable to them as they could ever hope to get.

Europe was stunned by the ultimatum, not the assassination; for this reason we call the crisis leading to war the July Crisis, not the June Crisis. Soldiers, including many senior leaders on leave in countries soon to be their enemies, hurried home to their units. Statesmen canceled vacations, and many foresaw that Europe was about to go to war over an issue that did not actually affect the vital interests of any of them except Austria-Hungary. They did not so much sleepwalk as awaken from a deep and pleasant slumber by a terrible fire that they could neither extinguish nor escape.

This is why the war that began in 1914 became the First World War instead of the Third Balkan War. The crisis hit too quickly and did not conform to the intellectual idea Europeans had of future war. It had not begun over a German-French confrontation as expected, yet the Germans were sending hundreds of thousands of soldiers to invade France and neutral Belgium. Perhaps more importantly, because Russia had mobilized first, every nation in Europe could defend its actions as essentially defensive in nature, and therefore just.

Europe, and by extension much of the world, was now at war for reasons no one could quite explain, except to say that they were fighting to protect themselves from an enemy immoral and inhuman enough to break the peace. Thus even socialists and most pacifists initially supported what they saw as a just war. Within a few dizzingly short weeks, the initial premise of Austria-Hungary’s demands on Serbia had fallen aside and the war had become a total war, fought for national survival and the complete destruction of the enemy. Unlike many past wars, there were no limited war aims to compromise over or to stop the fighting once attained. Thus were future mediation efforts by the Vatican, the Socialist International, and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson doomed to fail.

The causes of the First World War do not belong to a dead past of ancient ethnic grievances or governments ruled by incompetent aristocrats. Instead, the war began because of fatal miscalculations and unexpected contingencies. Put bluntly, strategists had planned for one set of crises, but got another. Their world, much like our own, had changed far too quickly for their plans or their intellectual preconceptions to adjust. In effect, they fought the wrong war, but all of the great powers could plausibly claim (at least in August 1914) that they had fought for the right reason, self-defense.

(Hat tip to Jonathan Jeckell.)


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    Considering how wrong our current elites are about everything Trump, nothing has changed. Our Ruling Class today is every bit as pig stupid as the RC that gave us WW I and WW II. Just look at the clown show that was the G1 + Six Dwarves. The dwarves richly deserved the slap down they got. Contrast that debacle with the highly successful meeting of the SCO at Dingdao.

  2. Lu An Li says:

    The Serb military officer called Apis and his Serb Black Hand were behind the assassination. So the Archduke and his wife were murdered by quasi-state sponsored terrorism.

    The Austrians issued a set of ten [or five?] demands from the Serbs all of which but one was granted. So war should not have been an inevitable consequence.

  3. Kirk says:

    This is an alternative interpretation of what really got WWI going that I find both interesting and provocative. Austrian opportunism and simultaneous incompetence, coupled with Russian overreach and incompetence resulted in war. The people who should have damped it all down, did not.

    To be honest, I think the whole question of who started WWI is somewhat academic; it’s like a house fire where there was bad wiring, poor housekeeping, smokers in bed, and rats gnawing at the wiring–You want any one cause for the resultant disaster, you have your pick of things that led to it all igniting.

    In the end, though… It all stems from that one day in Sarajevo, and the fortuitous fortune that put a failed assassin at the right place and time to make good on his earlier failure. The steps that it took to get there make one despair of there being any real rationality to the universe, because the odds were so heavily stacked against that specific sequence of events. As well, you have to wonder who was really pulling the strings in the background–There are long-held traditions in Serbia that the Black Hand was heavily influenced or even run by the Russian Okrana. How to evaluate that, I don’t know. There is some documentation to back that idea up, but nothing truly definitive, and if it’s true…? Then, the death of the Romanov’s was a bit of nasty karmic justice.

  4. Lucklucky says:

    I think WW I started — or no one cared to stop it — due to general optimism. These were times of growth, new technologies.

  5. Sam J. says:

    I think WWI and WWII greatly influenced the demeanor of the populations of Europe. The aggressive Europeans of old that conquered the earth…died off in massive numbers. This is one reason they are not pushing the Muslims back out of Europe. They will have to eventually but they’re taking their time about it.

    The amount of casualties in some battles staggers the imagination.

    I wonder if in the future, or real soon now, we have the same sort of stupid bloodletting in some beef with China. The Chinese are moving up and most of the time this happens there’s a big war to balance things. You can look at WWI and WWII as being a test of Germany as a rising world power that they failed. Much the same could happen with China. We’ve certainly screwed ourselves by handing over large parts of our manufacturing economy to them for next to nothing.

  6. Graham says:

    Here we are 100 years on and I still can’t decide if Britain was right to intervene on the Allied side or if it should have stayed out and let the Germans win their quick victory.

    I appreciate some ideological and more interest-based reasons for doing so, but the price of having done it was so high, the consequences so cataclysmic, and the long-term cost is still going up.

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